As regular readers know, I am very excited about the re-release of Dojo Wisdom, which will be out July 1. (You can preorder it here.)
To that end, I’m planning to excerpt a few of my favorite lessons from the book. Here’s one.
#84: Embrace the Dragon
According to martial arts legend, Shaolin temple monks who were ready to become masters would strip naked and embrace a fiery hot vessel carved with the pictures of a dragon and a tiger, (two favorite martial arts emblems.) The experience would leave scars on the monks’ bodies (and probably on their psyches, too). The scar on their bodies resembled a dragon and a tiger. The test would prove their courage and ability to overcome their fears. Who really wants to undergo a procedure that’s going to hurt a lot and leave scars?
Although you probably won’t ever have to embrace a red-hot vessel with a dragon embossed on it, there will be times in your life when you’re faced with a dragon, figuratively speaking, and you’ll have to do something about it.
What you have to do is embrace the dragon.
The dragon is pain. It is fear or anger, or whatever keeps you from happiness, from success, from mastery. Through the dragon, you will learn wisdom, but it will hurt. The dragon has been around for millennia, and will be around for all eternity. It knows a great deal. It can teach you much. But not if you’re constantly trying to slay the dragon. Not if you try to pretend that dragons don’t exist.
When my daughter was born with a serious genetic disorder, I spent a couple of months waiting for someone to tell me that they had been mistaken and that my daughter didn’t have this dreadful disease after all. Instead, she began to have intractable seizures that no medication could control. She had extensive brain surgery when she was nine months old to help stop the seizures.
That was when I finally embraced the dragon. I finally accepted that my daughter was dreadfully ill, and that there was no cure. There might be treatments, but no cure. I accepted that she was cognitively impaired and had numerous medical problems and physical disabilities.
But the dragon made me see how strong she was (and how strong I was.) The dragon made me see how brave she was, and how tenacious and stubborn. I didn’t need to compare her to other children her age. She would surely come up short. But she had things they lacked. She had character already! When she wasn’t even one year old!
The dragon taught me patience and acceptance. The dragon taught me to live the life I was given. The dragon taught me to disregard other people’s expectations and demands. So what if I don’t live in a house in the suburbs? I never wanted one. That was someone else’s dream.
As she grew older and could do more, physically and cognitively, and I had gotten to spend time with her and find out what kind of a character she really was, I was still afraid that she would die of the disease. After I’d had her for that long, there was no way I could lose her and still say sane.
So I embraced that dragon. I acknowledged that I was afraid she would die. I admitted that she could die, and leave me all alone in the world. I cried about it for two days. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without her. I would have to kill myself. (I get a bit theatrical when I’m in pain.) But the dragon taught me that even if she died, we could have a wonderful life together for all the days she had to give.
Which is not to say that she doesn’t exasperate me on a regular basis. But I know I am now more loving towards her and more patient than I would be otherwise. I make time for her even though work awaits. The work will always be there. I accept that she might leave long before I am ready, but I will face that dragon when it arrives. I don’t hold her at arms-length because I’m afraid. She snuggles right next to my heart.
We often try to protect ourselves by staying uncommitted or by keeping our arms crossed and our hearts closed. If you adopt a cat and love it, someday it will die. If you start a family tradition, someday it will end. Too often, we think, why bother? It will only cause pain. But the dragon teaches us what it means to be human, and that’s a lesson worth learning. Embrace the dragon. Accept that life has losses. If there were no losses, we could never know moments of pure, transcendent joy.
So go adopt that cat. Enjoy every moment you have. Accept that it’s not forever. Life is beautiful anyway. Maybe because of that.